From the street to the stage, new grassroots theater group tackles current controversies

You’re at a garden party in a friend’s front yard, engaging in light-hearted conversation between sips of a fruit-flavored cocktail. Without warning, you’re jolted from the comfort of small talk by a man on the sidewalk yelling at a woman who looks like she might be living out of her car.

You’re shocked to hear his abusive and belittling shouts and feel a sense of relief when a passerby confronts him. Glancing around, you notice the stunned faces of those at the gathering seem to mirror your confusion and mixed feelings about homelessness in Long Beach.

What you haven’t realized yet is that you were never truly a party goer, but an unwitting audience member watching the first four minutes of a play called “Charisma” by Long Beach playwright Fionnuala Kenny put on by a recently-launched theater group, East Village Caravanserai.

East Village Caravanserai founders Victoria Bryan, left and Sherry Diamond, right, lead a new Long Beach theatre group and nonprofit aiming to tackle topics of social justice through accessible, site-specific events. The two brought their first production “Dido and Aeneas,” to the Found Theatre in Long Beach on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Photo by Thomas R Cordova.

The experiment was one of many small salons, play readings, performances and fundraisers co-founders Sherry Diamond and Victoria Bryan have organized over the past almost three years to gauge the community’s response to their mission: To provide accessible, site-specific theater with an eye to encourage constructive dialogue on current controversies.

“We took a very volatile issue, where reasonable minds might disagree, and had a more genuine and deepened understanding of what the challenges are for each of those two characters,” said Diamond, who played the homeless woman.

Their first public event on Saturday, “Dido & Aeneas” started out in the street in the chilly night air with performers singing and engaging pedestrians on Long Beach Boulevard before coaxing them to enter The Found Theatre to experience the rest of the short opera.

Opera actors and audience fill the Found Theatre during the performance of “Dido & Aeneas,” in Long Beach on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Photo by Thomas R Cordova.

For Diamond and Bryan, Caravanserai is about engaging more audiences than those who have the financial means to seek out cultural experiences by making their events free to attend, as well as including people off the street, as Bryan calls it, “the unintended audience who can stumble upon it because we’re going to play the work so that they may.”

And while the nonprofit is not the only local arts group attempting to tackle social justice issues in varying ways, the Long Beach Opera and University Art Museum as examples, East Village Caravanserai is bringing theater into the mix.

“This is no criticism of Long Beach Opera, but I can’t afford it,” Diamond said. “[If there’s] a social justice themed-production that people interested in affecting social change can’t be a part of then we have to fill in those gaps.”

Alexia Benson performs in “Dido & Aeneas,” at the Found Theatre in Long Beach Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Although an ancient story, in “Dido & Aeneas” exile, displacement and family violence are themes played out by students from the University of Redlands, directed by former Arts Council for Long Beach board president Marco Schindelmann, as an approach to addressing recent headlines involving the refugee experience.

“What can we do about homelessness?” Diamond said. “What can we do about our ‘Dreamers?’ What can we do about incarcerated children at the border, the school-to-prison pipeline, all these things that we can come to a deeper understanding of through theater and not a 3-hour production in Los Angeles with parking and a 2-hour drive each way and dinner, but in 4 minutes, or 10 minutes, a 10-minute play that just hones in on the issue.”

The word “caravanserai” is Persian and describes the roadside inns built along trade routes throughout the Middle East where travelers could find shelter for a night, share stories and pass on information. Bryan, who lived in Iran for six years and recently traveled to Armenia with Diamond, was inspired by this ancient method of storytelling.

Jacob Pohlsander takes his position among the audience moments before the performance of “Dido and Aeneas,” at the Found Theatre in Long Beach Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Photo by Thomas R Cordova.

“We like that concept for our idea of theater, a coming-together, theater that speaks to all of our shared issues and concerns and then we take that information on with us, or on to other parts of our lives,” Bryan said.

And both have seen the positive effects theater can have on the psyche.

Bryan founded STOP-GAP in 1979 where she provided weekly drama therapy programs for victims of abuse, refugees and seniors in Santa Ana. In Long Beach, she’s an educator at Cal State Long Beach and also the former executive director of the Arts Council.

Isabel Jacobs, left, warms up before the performance of “Dido and Aeneas,” at the Found Theatre in Long Beach Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Photo by Thomas R Cordova.

Diamond met Bryan in 1998 through STOP-GAP where, as a registered drama therapist, joined to develop the program’s drama therapy component. Diamond also serves with Bryan on the board of directors of Long Beach’s Garage Theatre.

Caravanserai’s second production, an opera by Mozart called “Idomeneo”, will take place on Saturday, April 13 at 6 p.m. at the East Village Art Park, 150 Elm Ave., while knowing attendees and unsuspecting passersby can expect to run into more salons, theater performances, short plays, spoken word and other events throughout the year.

“We anticipate the East Village will be the heart of our work so the Art Park is a great example of that,” Bryan said. “It can be a living room, it can be a front yard, it can be a restaurant, those are the kinds of spaces that we have used and will continue to use. That’s not to say we might not at some point go beyond that.”

Those interested in collaborating with East Village Caravanserai, including dancers, artists and other performers, can email [email protected].

More photos:

Jacob Pohlsander lies in front of the audience as he performs in “Dido & Aeneas,” at the Found Theatre in Long Beach Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Mari Powell looks up during her performance in “Dido & Aeneas,” at the Found Theatre in Long Beach Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Ana Rangel, right, puts makeup on Paula Cevallos, left, before the performance of “Dido & Aeneas,” at the Found Theatre in Long Beach Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

The opera actors performed through out the audience as Angela Willcocks takes a selfie during the performance of “Dido & Aeneas,” at the Found Theatre in Long Beach Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Dan Darnell looks through the doorway window as he watches the opera performers outside in front of the Found Theatre in “Dido & Aeneas,” in Long Beach Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Paula Cevallos during the performance of “Dido & Aeneas,” at the Found Theatre in Long Beach Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

The performance of “Dido and Aeneas,” at the Found Theatre in Long Beach Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. Photo by Thomas R Cordova.

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Asia Morris has been with the Long Beach Post for five years, specializing in coverage of the arts. Her parents gave her the name because they wanted her to be a world traveler and they got their wish. She has obliged by pursuing art, journalism and a second career as a competitive cyclist.
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